Terry de Castro - Biography
By Jeff Hunt
Song is a curious thing. Since long before Homer, it’s been how we announce our heroics, profess our loves, celebrate our God, and provide our community with the occasional news flash (“Troy Defeated”; “Titanic Sinks”; “Casey Jones, RR Hero, Dead”). Will any song, pop or otherwise, change the world? Probably not, but it’s kind of cool that 15,000+ years down the road, we can still derive something intimate and uniquely Human from a brief bit of verse-chorus-verse that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
To fully appreciate Terry de Castro’s contribution to the verse-chorus-verse corpus, a bit of background is required. For the past decade, she has been the bassist of a band called The Wedding Present. They’ve had a slew of Top-40 hits in their native England (de Castro, however, is American), are critically acclaimed, and were perennial favorites of that country’s pop kingmaker, the late John Peel. They are frequently compared (somewhat incongruently) to both The Smiths and The Fall. They’ve worked repeatedly with Steve Albini, and plied their angular fretwork for throngs at festivals like Reading and Glastonberry.
However, the spotlight falls primarily on The Wedding Present’s founder, lyricist, and vocalist, David Gedge. His songwriting is mostly devoted to a single topic: his lovelife. De Castro is an especially talented multi-instrumentalist, and in no way is she overtly marginalized – she co-wrote nearly all of the music on the band’s latest release, El Rey (2008 Manifesto) – but it’s fair to say that The Wedding Present is Gedge’s show.
All of which makes de Castro’s novel approach to her solo debut, The Casa Verde (2008 Scopitones/Vibrant), especially charming, likable, and, well, curious. Finally given the opportunity to be the center of attention, she has instead taken a wonderfully unusual and un-rockstarish course, and recorded an album comprised entirely of covers. That’s not so odd in and of itself. What’s striking is her selection criterion. These aren’t songs that are well known, and they weren’t written by famous artists. The people who contributed the tracks on this record have one single, simple thing in common. Each one is Terry de Castro’s friend.
It’s a deliberately understated exercise. There is a warm, inviting humility in the basic premise of devoting a record to the telling of stories by your friends, and it informs the entire endeavor, setting a tone of intimacy and empathy. By gathering a social circle of her peers, then giving a voice to their words and melodies, de Castro in turn invites the listener to join in; to commiserate with their various longings and failings; to celebrate successes; and sometimes to just sing along.
Most immediately noteworthy is the downshift in tenor and tempo from de Castro’s writing for The Wedding Present. Freed (almost) from Gedge’s libidinal preoccupations, you can hear an exhale of conceptual relief as the music softens at the edges, and strikes a calmer, more contemplative note. Nationality comes into play, too: The Casa Verde is replete with the intrinsically soothing and unmistakably American strains of steel guitar, while de Castro provides banjo, among other instruments.
De Castro’s maturity as an artist is apparent from the first track, as she adopts a piece by Gedge, “Dalliance,” readily making it her own by layering pedal-steel and acoustic guitars, and economical yet propulsive bass (which is deservedly prominent in the mix). It’s a wry, subtly arch choice to launch this particular solo debut, all things considered, and she voices Gedge’s first-person romantic recriminations in her own supremely reassuring half-whisper; whether she does so with a twinkle in her eye is open to speculation.
In one of the album’s highlight, de Castro strikes a darker tone with “East St. O’Neill” by Hank Starrs. With a deceptively languid start and sparkling imagery, it builds slowly, on a theme of murder and sorrow, rising on the strength of rousing chord changes that are disturbingly catchy, given the subject matter.
As the record progresses, a rich array of styles and subjects take their spin across the dance floor. “The Sun Is Always Sweetest” by Dean Hawksley is a bittersweet Country-tinged waltz, while his other contribution, “The Great Avalanche,” is a brief piece of jaunty, bouncy pop-rock. Two tracks by Astrid Williamson, “Glorious” and “To Love You,” are vampy, swirling, torch songs; others range from ballads to British Invasion jangle. Several of the authors – they also include Mike Chylinski, Simone White, Johnny Daukes, and Paul Hiraga – are (nobly) amateur songwriters, but de Castro does an expert job of filtering their material through her own self-assured aesthetic, while directing an outstanding band in the process.
Lyrically, de Castro’s collection of friends speaks in a suitably diverse range of voices. They titter and titillate; they flirt and love, scold and snark; humored, they mock the banality of their day jobs; bewildered, they grieve. They gripe about their bands. They smoke and drink. They live.
The Casa Verde doesn’t posture, and it harbors no indie-rock conceits – it knows it’s a finely crafted, lovingly assembled pop record; a simple collection of songs. Yet together these songs form a chorus of their own, one that vivifies Terry de Castro’s life, and the lives of her friends. To that extent, The Casa Verde is absolutely greater than the sum of its already excellent parts. And while it probably won’t change the world, it will make you feel like you’re one of Terry de Castro’s friends.
Verse-chorus-verse. It’s kind of cool.